Q&A: San Juan and University of the Pacific coach J.J. Wozniak
Note: NorCal Premier Soccer regularly sits down with an influential figure in the youth soccer landscape to pick their brain about a variety of different topics that are relevant in the current soccer environment in the United States. For this edition we spoke with San Juan Soccer Club and University of the Pacific coach J.J. Wozniak. A former college player at St. Louis University and Fresno State, Wozniak played professionally for a variety of different clubs before joining the California Odyssey in the early 2000’s. Since then, Wozniak has also coached at Fresno State, Belmont University, and the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.
NorCal: What was it like growing up in San Diego?
Wozniak: I’d leave school on my own, go back home, grab my soccer stuff, catch either the trolly or the bus, go into Chula Vista, take a bus over to my grandma’s and my grandma or step grandpa would drive me to practice and then my dad would pick me up after work. Times have changed, right? That was my mode of transportation, the trolly or the bus. That’s how I got around in junior high and high school. That’s where I grew up, then I went to St. Louis University for three years and then transferred to Fresno State for two more years because I redshirted my first year at St. Louis. But that’s how all the ties to Northern California came up because I played for Fresno in 95 and 96. I had a couple of stints in MLS, not to where I signed a contract or anything, but I spent some time with the Galaxy and the San Jose Clash, which now is the Earthquakes. Then when I went back to Fresno and I’d already been coaching a bit. The two clubs in Clovis kind of disbanded and made California Odyssey in 2002 so I was there from day one and stayed for 10 years and helped build it and was the director of coaching. It was a time I look back on very fondly.
NorCal: How did you fall in love with soccer?
Wozniak: My step grandfather was Hungarian and he came to the States from Hungary when he was 22 or 23 years old. He was a big time soccer player, a goalkeeper in Hungary. He actually had gotten some invites into the Hungarian U17 camps. I was born in 75 and by the time I was two, three, four-years-old, I was kicking a soccer ball. My dad was American, didn’t know anything about soccer. They were always kind of battling because I also played baseball all the way through high school, so I was playing two sports, but soccer was always my No. 1. (My step grandpa) and I were always out kicking a ball. We were always shooting, doing different things, and then he was a former goalkeeper so it was a natural thing that I gravitated towards. He was my first coach when I played rec soccer when I was five and six-years-old. When I got to U10s and U11s, that’s when I kind of moved on from him and got into the club world and never looked back. But I’m just a big sports person. I’m very passionate about soccer, I watch it as much as I can, I feel like I’m a student of the game. Even now, I love watching the game and I love watching the players, but I also love watching the managers and the strategy to learn and see what they’re doing, seeing what adjustments they’re making, seeing if I can figure out what’s going on. But I’m also a huge NBA fan. I’m a big Clipper fan because they were in San Diego when I was a kid. Yeah, I’ve been through the worst of times. The people closest to me know that I’m a diehard Clipper fan, whether they could barely win 10 games or when they were making the Western Conference Finals. I’m a San Diego Sports fan, Padres, Chargers. I’m just all about sports, man. But what I loved about soccer and being a goalkeeper was I relished the opportunity to be that player. There were games where I wouldn’t touch a ball, but those moments when we’d either win or lose because of me, I thought that was exciting. I just loved that. It’s not that baseball wasn’t good enough or anything, but soccer was just a sport that I’d been playing since I could walk or run. I don’t really know how to explain it but I think it all goes back to my step grandpa and his influence and his mentorship. And also my dad. He became an even bigger fan of soccer than I was. By the time I was in high school, we had Soccer America, my dad knew the ins and outs of the entire world of soccer.
NorCal: What was the youth soccer landscape like for you when you were playing as compared to now?
Wozniak: It’s just evolved. Back when I was playing, even into the early 90s, it wasn’t big business. It wasn’t what it’s turned into now. My coach for my club team was a dad. We had a fantastic team. We had players from all over San Diego County by the time we were U16. But Scott Shields was our coach and his son, Scotty Shields, was our starting center midfielder. At the end of the day, it wasn’t like Mr. Shields knew a whole lot about soccer, but he knew a lot about sports and was a good manager of kids. He had a good assistant coach that was another dad. We just had talented players. We played because of the coaches, but we played because of the love. Our training sessions weren’t what they are today. It was organized, but it wasn’t thorough, it didn’t have a theme, it didn’t have a topic. When did it start to become a big deal about periodization? You know, all these big words that people throw around. But that’s what it’s turned into today because now you have a lot of former players who all became coaches. I think the youth players in our country now are so fortunate because coaching has gotten better. This is such a challenging world that we’re in, people don’t even understand it. And we probably don’t get to spend enough time actually coaching. But the coaching has just gotten so much better, the coaching education piece has, the fact that former players are now coaching and are now learning and developing and getting better. The depth and the quality of youth soccer around the country is improving because no matter where you go there’s good coaching. You probably couldn’t say that back in the day. Teams that had success, there were some good coaches. For us back in the day, it was Nomads with Derek Armstrong. He was one of the few when I was growing up where it was a profession. All his teams were fantastic. It’s still one of the top clubs, but back in the 70s, the 80s, the 90s, that was the club. They had a pro format, coaching wise, but the majority of clubs didn’t. We showed up because we wanted to scrimmage and play for an hour and a half. Now you have the training sessions laid out and there’s more structure. It’s warmup, technical, activate, where are you with fitness, small-sided, bigger games, topics, themes. That didn’t happen back in the day. I think that’s the biggest thing, that coaching has come so far. There are just so many coaches who played and have stayed in the game and I think that’s massive.
NorCal: You mentioned playing baseball as well growing up. Nowadays, kids seem to be specializing in one sport earlier. Do you think there is value in kids playing more than one sport up until a late age?
Wozniak: When I was growing up it was different. We didn’t even play year-round. I’m 46 now, but I remember in the early 2000s when clubs used to only be seven or eight months out of the year and that’s what’s changed. So it’s hard for me because my experience in 1982-92 is a lot different than what a kid is going through from 2012-2022. If I was growing up in today’s world, I don’t know if I could do both because kids are spending year-round working on their skills. I was just more fortunate when I was growing up that it wasn’t like that because, again, youth soccer wasn’t like what it is today. I had three, four, or five months off from soccer so what did I do? I played baseball. It just fit in the schedule a whole lot better. When I coach a player who’s doing two sports, I think as they get older, it does become more challenging just because the youth player has developed and evolved to the point where they’re spending so much time on one sport so if they’re not, then it may pass them a little bit. But each individual case is different. There are some kids who are fortunate enough to play two sports where their ability and level allows them to balance both at a high level. Then there are some kids who are playing two sports and it’s not really helping them with either one because the kid next to them is spending every night of every week of every month playing soccer and the gap between the levels starts to increase.
NorCal: I was reading something about how Gio Renya played basketball until he was almost 15 and that turned out okay.
Wozniak: But look at his pedigree and who his dad is and who his mom is. Some kids can play two sports at the same time and they’re going to find a way to commit to that. I think what happens a lot of times with some kids is they can’t do the two at the same time so sometimes when they pick the other sport, that’s the challenge. Gio Renya is obviously a phenomenal soccer player, right? Well even when he’s playing basketball, I’m telling you right now, he’s playing soccer the same day. Three of the best years of my life were at Saint Louis U and playing at a place that had 10 D-I national championships. But every single spring, we would spend day after day in the rec center playing basketball. I played with some national team guys and they’d just be in there hooping. We were on the court for an hour, an hour-and-a-half and just drenched in sweat. It was an incredible workout where we were working on our quickness, our explosion. Once every other week, we’d go and play two-on-two basketball for our goalkeeper trainings. Dr. Chuck, he was our goalkeeper coach, like 50, 55-years-old and banging left footed shots in the upper corner against us, while we’d be diving around with elbow pads because our turf was like diving on concrete. So once every two weeks, he’d tell us to meet him in the rec center and he’d be right in there with us and we’d play two-v-two hoops. It was awesome for goalkeepers. So I encourage playing two sports as well, but unfortunately it’s just kind of come down to that word, “specialization.” But nowadays, how much time do these kids even get off? Like where are you fitting in the other sport if you’re an ECNL kid and this is truly what you want to pursue. It’s just truly a different time. I don’t know how I would do that, I just think that my mentality would be that if it was what I truly wanted to do, I would go above and beyond to make sure that I was committed to both and getting better at both. For me, I just think every player’s got a different situation and let’s talk about it. I have my past experiences but as we’ve progressed into 2021, it’s just getting harder and harder to play multiple sports at an elite level.
NorCal: What was it like coaching this past year when we couldn’t play games? As a coach how did you navigate the pandemic?
Wozniak: It was definitely a challenge because it was an adjustment for all of us but I think I’ve heard a lot of coaches make the best point. In an ideal situation, you would have a certain number of training sessions for each game you played, but in this country we play 60, 70, 80 games a year. So the pandemic almost forced our hand because training was really the only thing that could take place. But there’s no doubt that, even for coaches, it just went way too long. I think the challenge of it was trying to stay ahead of it with your kids. I enjoyed that challenge. I knew every single night or at least every single week that I had to present something as a coach that still inspired and motivated the kids to come out. I feel like I try to be prepared and organized and thorough but when you’ve been doing it for quite some time, you kind of have things in your mind during normal times where you can put pencil to paper and it comes out in a split second based on the team and who we have coming up and where we are in the season. That all comes pretty quick. This situation took me out of my comfort zone. I had to be even better than I ever was because it was three months where we could only have one player and one ball in a 10×10 grid. Well if you’re doing 40 of those sessions, or how many ever it turned into…I’m all about repetition but for kids that can get old, that can get stale. So I had to really challenge myself to spend time to find a way to want these kids to want to be out there. I feel good about it because, I’m not going to say that I was perfect or anything, but the players showed up, they wanted to be there. They enjoyed the activities during the session, during the most challenging time that any of us have ever gone through and hopefully will ever go through. For me, it puts a smile on my face because I feel like the players are in a good place because ultimately I was challenged to be better and be at my best.
NorCal: What did you learn from your playing career that you apply now as a lesson when you coach?
Wozniak: I was very fortunate to play for some high-level coaches. Once I got into college, I had some unbelievable mentors, just individuals who challenged me as a player, who pushed me, who motivated me, who drove me to try to be the best player I could possibly be because I wanted to be a professional. I mean, everybody wants to be a pro, right? But as I was moving along, I really felt like I could attain that, that I could achieve that. I just had coaches who pushed me and I felt like I had coaches who pushed me the right way. Even when I got into the A-League or the USISL, or MLS, I was just a student of the game just because of the position. The styles of the coaches that I was around…players wanted to play for those coaches. That was a massive influence on me. All I ever said, because I started coaching just doing camps in high school, but I could just see this whole trajectory coming in place where this could be a profession. How cool would that be, to stay in the sport that I love? I want to pay it forward. When people ask me about my philosophy, I always tell them that I do it for the kids that I work with. Whether it’s at the college or youth level. I know how good the game was for me in my life. That’s what I’m trying to give back. I feel like this is what I was supposed to do, to coach and to mentor. I use the word “inspire” a lot. If the players I’m around are in a good place, then I feel great about it and I feel like I’m doing my job.
NorCal: The professional soccer landscape is pretty stable right now in the United States but when you were playing, there were teams popping up and folding left and right and nothing seemed like it would last for more than a few years. What was your experience like playing professionally around that time? How did you earn a living?
Wozniak: By also coaching. That’s as matter of fact as I can get. The way the landscape worked was we had MLS and then we had the A-League, which is basically what the USL is now. You had a lot of the clubs around the country in the A-League were very successful with very good crowds, similar to the Republic or when Fresno had their team and were getting 6,000 to 8,000 people a game. What was going on was the league minimum salary for MLS wasn’t very high for a long time. So if you were in New York, LA, Chicago, big markets…so a lot of guys played in the A-League because they played in the A-League and made more money. Some would also play in the A-League and then at the time the NPSL was the big indoor league, so they would play both and basically play 10, 11 months out of the year, almost year round. And they’d make the money from the A-League on a monthly basis and make the money from the indoor league. They were making way more than $24,000 so guys wouldn’t even consider going to MLS because it would be a pay cut. But then there would be times where the team that you thought was the most successful would all of a sudden not exist anymore. Teams would get 8,000 people for a game and then fold and you’d be like “what?” It wasn’t because the teams weren’t paying out, it was just business decisions. That was kind of the landscape. For me, a lot of times you’d get free apartments so you wouldn’t have to pay rent or utilities. A lot of times there would be situations where the teams were connected with sponsors for car lots or dealerships so there’d be three, four guys living in two different apartments and they’d have access to a car. But you just did it more for the love of the game. You just did it because you had the opportunity and you wanted to do it so everyone just found a way to make it work. At the end of the day, for me, I didn’t have a family at the time so it was just cool to experience. In 1997, I played with the San Francisco Bay Seals and we had the US Open Cup run.
NorCal: You were on that team that made the semifinals?
Wozniak: I was the starting keeper, I still have the DVD of that run. A lot of people have tried to track me down for that one. I had it on a VHS tape and about 10 years ago my wife’s parents transferred it onto a DVD. We were all amateurs that year but we were all doing it to make it to the next level. So we made this huge Open Cup run and beat the Sounders when they were in the A-League and then we beat the Kansas City Wizards and then we beat the Clash but lost 2-1 to DC United in the semis. I’ll never forget that because we had every opportunity to beat DC United and that’s when they had Harkes and Etcheverry and Diaz Arce and Scott Garlick in goal and Carlos Llamosa and Bruce Arena was the head coach and Richie Williams running around in the middle. I’ll never forget it, we played them on a Tuesday night at UoP in Stockton. The promoters were having both semis at that field for whatever reason, I have no idea. The other game was the MetroStars and the Dallas Burn and they were both on a Tuesday but the Friday before both the MetroStars and Dallas pulled out and one of them hosted so it was just our game and there were 12 or 13,000 people. We lost. The next day we flew to Albuquerque because we were in the USISL Division III and we were in the national semifinals playing against who are now FC Charlotte. We played the worst game, they were better than us on the night, but I think we wound up losing 3-1 and having a guy sent off. But just the emotion going from that Open Cup run (to this game). That’s what we kick ourselves for not winning that championship. It was so much to go from that Tuesday night and that game and that high to then going to Albuquerque where there’s like 200 people in the stands and then you have this highly-motivated Charlotte team because we had a target on our back and they got us. We won the third place game but that year I just made money however I could. Camps, Ziemer Brother camps. We were doing whatever we could. Odd jobs. I drove a storage truck of frozen goods. I picked up a gig driving around Northern California delivering fundraiser type stuff, you know where kids would sell stuff. I was delivering all those goods to schools. Like I had the Thomas and Mack guide out, trying to figure it out driving all around like Pittsburgh and Concord and all these places just to try to make ends meet to chase the dream. That was the landscape. I got into the A-League with the Hershey Wildcats in 98, went into preseason with the Galaxy and at the time they had Kevin Hartman but also Matt Reis. It was all good, I went to Hershey, making a decent amount of money each month and a free place to live, so I got to experience that. I’ve chased the paycheck and done all that. We just tried to figure out how to do it because you just don’t want to let it go because you’re young. You’re so close, yet so far. There were so many life experiences that looking back…it’s like, wow, what an experience.
NorCal: Is there anything else that you’d like to add?
Wozniak: It’s hard to sum that up because I just feel like…I’ve read a few of the Q&A’s that you guys have published and they’re all brilliant soccer minds. I think we’re kind of all in the same boat. It’s our profession, but truly what I think gets lost is ultimately how much we all truly are in it for the right reasons and for the kids and for the youth and the players to try to just help them maneuver through their development progression. Sometimes things get caught up in the wins and losses, which is totally understandable, but there’s a lot of experience in Northern California. I think Northern California is in a good place. There are a lot of talented people, a lot of coaches with experience, and a lot of people who care.